The Cultural Omnivore’s Introduction to Classical Music

Gone are the days when a taste for classical music had to be backed by a six-figure salary, an old-money social circle, and season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera House. Today’s culture vultures consume widely, albeit not indiscriminately, and while you might not put Beethoven at the top of your pump-up mix, we know you’ve all grooved out to Hungarian Dance No. 5 and wish you played the cello every now and then. With indie idols like Radiohead and Sufjan Stevens playing shows accompanied by orchestras, genres have never been more permeable; but the classical-light instrumentals that cameo in the pop tracks we love are only palate teasers. If you like what you’ve heard so far and want to explore where it all came from, enjoy our four-course primer on classical music, after the jump.

Step 1: Get with the orchestration

One of the most intimidating aspects of classical music to the ears of a pop consumer is that it often lacks the thing we pick out first in a song: lyrics. Sure, there’s also the entire structure of the piece, bearing no likeness to the AABA configuration of a pop song, but we’ll put that aside momentarily. Where are the words?

That singing along is an integral part of the listening experience is so hardwired into our contemporary mindset that when we can’t, we feel detached from what we’re hearing. The mainstreaming of electronic genres has changed that a bit, but head banging doesn’t work as well with Mozart as it does with Skrillex, so get on board with active listening. While a pop song is usually comprised of a sung melody line and backup instrumentals, a classical melody is tossed between instruments, octaves, and timbres. Isolating it can be an aural challenge, one that brings to light the textures of an arrangement.

But we believe in baby steps. In order to ease your ear into classical orchestration, try listening to something you’re familiar with rewritten for orchestral instruments. There are plenty of compositions within an indie lover’s comfort zone covered by bands that replace guitars and basses with violins and violas. We like the gorgeous mainstream rearrangements by the Vitamin String Quartet, the harder rock covers by the long-haired, eyeliner-wearing, cello-wielding men of Apocolyptica, and, most of all, the alternative favorites reinterpreted by the Jingle Punks Hipster Orchestra (pictured above), who recently released their Nirvana Sessions in honor of the 20th anniversary of Nevermind. Listen to their rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit below.